THE young man in the mirrored sunglasses and acid-washed jeans didn't hesitate when asked which candidate he would support in the coming parliamentary elections: ``I'll vote for whomever the Sheikh says to.'' Hardly the expected response from someone who looked more like a black marketeer than a Muslim believer.
The remark also fuels questions about the level of religious faith in Muslim Azerbaijan, where local leaders - both Communist and anti-Communist, religious and secular - maintain that Islamic fundamentalism is not on the rise. A response like that of the young man, a cab driver, is not typical, said several such leaders.
Still, local leaders affirm that Islam has experienced a renewal of interest here in recent years - much like the revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia and the Eastern-rite Catholic Church in the Ukraine. In the Gorbachev-era mood of openness, mosques are being reopened, the Koran is available, and children are receiving religious education openly. Such rights are now, in theory at least, enshrined in law. And like other ethnic groups around the Soviet Union, Azerbaijanis are turning to religion for solace in hard times and to gain a greater understanding of their ancient cultural heritage.
In an interview, Kazi Sabir Ben Hussein, the deputy chief sheikh of Baku, described how local communities are no longer waiting for permission from Moscow to reopen long-dormant mosques. ``People gather at a mosque, take off the lock, and start to pray by themselves,'' says Sheikh Sabir. ``This is perestroika from below.''
But don't call it ``fundamentalism.'' Leaders here know that use of the word itself, the same in Russian as in English, sets off alarm bells among the Russian-dominated leadership in Moscow as well as in the West - particularly since the majority of Azerbaijani Muslims practice Shiite Islam, which invites comparisons to Shiite Iran on Azerbaijan's southern border.
AZERBAIJANIS keenly feel that both Soviet and Western news coverage of the protracted dispute between them and neighboring Armenia already is biased in favor of the Christian Armenians, and the Azerbaijanis are eager not to heighten such feelings.
``Recently, a lot of people have been talking about fundamentalism, about the Islamic factor, and giving a certain nuance to the Islamic movement,'' says Sabir. ``We can't call these people our friends. They are trying to pit other peoples and nations against Azerbaijan.''
Nadzhaf Nadzhafov, a moderate political activist and former editor of the Azerbaijani Popular Front newspaper, argues that atheistic Soviet policies have so cut off Azerbaijanis from their Islamic roots that a surge of fundamentalism is simply not possible. Until recently, all but a handful of mosques have been closed. According to experts on Azerbaijan in the West, until a few years ago, the Azerbaijani clergy were so compromised by the Soviet secret police that believers feared attending the mosque lest they be reported.
The Azerbaijani intelligentsia, which does not tend to be religious, has long pushed for a secular society. Even in the late 19th century there was a strong modernist movement among the educated classes.
According to Prof. Tadeusz Swietochowski, a specialist on Azerbaijani history at Monmouth College in West Long Branch, N.J., Azerbaijani secularization emerged as a means of keeping Shiites and Sunnis from clashing. With two-thirds of the population Shiite and one-third Sunni, he says, ``radical fundamentalism would equal the split of the nation.''
TO walk around modern-day Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is to experience a mix of cultures, from Azerbaijani and Turkish, which are essentially the same, to Slavic and Western. Despite the bloody strife of last January, Baku residents still point with pride to the ethnic mix of this city of 1.2 million people. Russians who fled have come back. There are even some Armenians still here.
Outwardly, there are no signs of Shiite fundamentalist tendencies. In three days, no women in veils were seen. Except inside the mosque, no one was seen kneeling in prayer toward Mecca. And at the city's main mosque, believers celebrated Ashura, a Muslim fast day, without ritual self-beatings with chains. But Professor Swietochowski cautions that, in fact, there are two nations in Azerbaijan, Baku and non-Baku. He visited rural Azerbaijan in June and saw a marked change from his last visit in 1986. He says he saw religious rituals, such as the killing of sheep. Religious brotherhoods had formed. Portraits of the late Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini hung in houses. People listened to northern Iran's Radio Tabriz, distinguishable by a special dialect of Azerbaijani, the language of northern Iran.
``In the countryside, people look to Iran and Shiism,'' Swietochowski says. ``Some people talk of Iran as their own.'' Indeed, Iran's northernmost provinces were once part of the historic region of Azerbaijan, and some Soviet Azerbaijanis dream of reuniting their divided nation. Last New Year's Eve, Soviet Azerbaijanis in the poor region of Nakhichevan tore down border installations and crossed into Iran, some with hopes of finding relatives.
The incident sent chills through the Moscow leadership as it raised old fears of an uncontrollable and, to them, incomprehensible Muslim resurgence in far-flung corners of the country. For Western-oriented Baku intellectuals, the event contained clues that reunification with northern Iran - or ``southern Azerbaijan,'' as some call it - may not be as desirable to some Azerbaijanis as they may have thought. Zardusht Alizade, a leading Azerbaijanis Social Democrat, says he heard reports of pro-fundamentalist Azerbaijanis who went into Iran prepared to embrace Khomeini-ism and came away firmly against it.
Much remains unexplained about the Nakhichevan incident just as, overall in the USSR, understanding of the country's Muslim peoples remains sparse. (In the Soviet Union, whose population is 18 percent Muslim - with a birth rate much higher than that of the Slavs - there is no institute dedicated to training specialists on Islamic affairs.)
IN Azerbaijan, the Sept. 30 elections for the republic's parliament could have provided insights into the role of Islam in local politics. According to David Nissman, a Washington-based Turkologist, there are two known Islamic parties in Azerbaijan. The first, a legal grouping formed in December called Tovbe, could be called ``Muslim Social Democrats,'' Dr. Nissman says. Party leaders are moderate and reformist, and believe that Islam has stagnated.
The other Islamic party is an illegal Khomeini-ist formation that favors, among other things, veiling women. The group's leader, Muhammad Gatami, is an Iranian political refugee who has been arrested several times and was blamed for stirring up disturbances in Azerbaijan in 1988.
In the end, the September campaign and election revealed little about Islam and politics in Azerbaijan. Under Baku's continuing state of emergency, in place since last January's unrest, no one was allowed to run on an Islamic platform. Nor could anyone run who had been imprisoned or detained briefly and freed without any charges.
Azerbaijan's communist rulers are clearly ambivalent about Islam, a feeling reflected in some of their new policies. Earlier this year, it was announced that there would now be flights from Azerbaijan to Mecca, Islam's holiest shrine. But so far, relatively few have made the trip (numbering only in the dozens) and many of the pilgrims have been local Islamic dignitaries.
In Baku, underlying tensions have only been pushed under the surface by military rule. ``The Azerbaijani authorities are not ready to cope with the upheaval'' that could take place if mass flights to Mecca were offered, says Elizabeth Carlson, a specialist on Transcaucasia at Radio Liberty in Munich. ``They're using kid gloves with the Islam issue. The last thing they want is riots.''